Diffusion everywhere: Uprising in North Africa


Egyptian police have used tear gas and water cannon to break up rare anti-government protests in the capital. Thousands of people had joined the protests in Cairo, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia and vowing to stay in place until the government fell.

In a recent article on the diffusion of regime contention in Europe between 1830 and 1940, Kurt Weyland writes:

Tapping in the dark in their own country, oppositionists are easily impressed by a shining example elsewhere. The unexpected fall of a foreign autocrat suggests to disaffected groups in other polities that the time has come for the decisive move. If a seemingly powerful regime is suddenly revealed as brittle, they are tempted to believe that their own ruler is equally weak and that their compatriots are willing and able to shake off the yoke of nondemocracy as well. Given that citizens of the first country achieved an unexpected success, they should manage to accomplish the same feat! Given the imperfect information and high uncertainty prevailing under autocracy, an external precedent can exert great impact, prompting an immediate updating of situational judgments, suggesting a propitious opening, and thus triggering a rash of challenges. The precedent of a foreign success can acquire disproportionate importance and suddenly reshape political actors’ assessments of opportunities and risks. In these ways, a stunning precedent can inspire many efforts at emulation and thus provide a powerful impetus for change.

Moreover, Weyland argues that the outcomes of the diffusion process can be quite diverse. In addition to the successful replication of the protests (which is quite rare) and to their failure, diffusion can lead to:

– preemptive reforms, with which authorities attempt, often successfully, to prevent their downfall, but which can bring significant progress towards democracy;

– determined repression, which reinforces the authorities’ stronghold on power and reduces the prospects democratization prospects in the medium term.

The latter scenario implies that outcomes in different countries are negatively correlated, which is a good reminder that diffusion needs not lead to convergence.


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